The FBI now has more than 100 task forces devoted exclusively to fighting terrorism. But is the government manufacturing ghosts?
"So, what you wanna do?" the friend asked. "A target?" the wanna-be jihadi replied. "I want some type of city-hall-type stuff, federal courthouses."
It was late November 2006, and twenty-two-year-old Derrick Shareef and his friend Jameel were hanging out in Rockford, Illinois, dreaming about staging a terrorist attack on America. The two men weren't sure what kind of assault they could pull off. All Shareef knew was that he wanted to cause major damage, to wreak vengeance on the country he held responsible for oppressing Muslims worldwide. "Smoke a judge," Shareef said. Maybe firebomb a government building.
But while Shareef harbored violent fantasies, he was hardly a serious threat as a jihadi. An American-born convert to Islam, he had no military training and no weapons. He had less than $100 in the bank. He worked in a dead-end job as a clerk in a video-game store. He didn't own a car. So dire were his circumstances, Shareef had no place to live. Then one day, Jameel, a fellow Muslim, had shown up at EB Games and offered him shelter. Within hours of meeting his new brother, Shareef had moved in with Jameel and his three wives and nine children. Living together, the pair fantasized about targets in Rockford, a Midwestern city of 150,000, with a minuscule Muslim population and the lone claim to fame of being the hometown of Cheap Trick.
The fact that Shareef was a loser with no means of living out his imagination didn't stop his friend from encouraging his delusions of grandeur. On the contrary, Jameel continually pushed Shareef to escalate his plans. "When you wanna plan on doing this?" he asked Shareef, talking about the plot to go after a government building. "Because we have to make specific plans and dates."
"I wanna case one first," Shareef said. There was only one problem: Jameel's car was in the garage getting repaired. "We can case one when you get the car back."
"What about time frame?" Jameel prodded.
"I like the holiday season," Shareef said, displaying an ambivalence unusual in a suicide bomber hellbent on murdering civilians. "Hell, we ain't gotta hit nobody —just blow the place up."
Finding a meaningful target to blow up in Rockford isn't easy. A hardscrabble town in the middle of America, the place is not much more than an intersection of interstates and railway lines, with little of note that might attract the attention of terrorists. So Jameel suggested the main attraction in town: CherryVale Mall, a sad-sack collection of clothing stores and sneaker shops on the outskirts of Rockford. "The mall's good," he told Shareef.
"I swear by Allah, man, I'm down for it too," Shareef said. "I'm down for the cause. I'm down to live for the cause and die for the cause, man."
When Jameel got his car back from the garage, the two men went to case the mall.
"If you ever wanna back out . . . 'cause, you gotta let me know," Jameel said. "I'm checking your heart now."
"I'm down," Shareef said.
"We ain't gonna get caught," Jameel assured him. "Don't worry."
"I'm not worried about getting caught," Shareef replied. "Not alive."
For all his bluster, Shareef was, by any objective measure, a pathetic and hapless jihadist — one of a new breed of domestic terrorists the federal government has paraded before the media since 9/11. The FBI, in a sense, elevated Shareef, working to transform him from a boastful store clerk into a suicidal mall-bomber. Like many other alleged extremists who have been targeted by the authorities, Shareef didn't know that his brand-new friend —the eager co-conspirator drawing him ever further into a terror plot —was actually an informant for the FBI.